31 Days to Scare ~ Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween

The Facts:

Synopsis: Halloween comes to life in a comedy adventure based on R.L. Stine’s 400-million-selling series of books.

Stars: Jack Black, Madison Iseman, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Chris Parnell, Ken Jeong, Jeremy Ray Taylor

Director: Ari Sandel

Rated: PG

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: Fall is in the air and it’s definitely beginning to feel a lot like Halloween. This is the time each year I can watch whatever I want if it’s related to Halloween and not feel the least bit of guilt for neglecting non-genre films. That’s why I opted out of a screening for a movie with considerable more buzz than Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween and found myself in an early evening preview of this follow-up to the modest hit from 2015.  Side note…why aren’t all screenings at 6:30pm?  Makes it possible to have some part of your night free if you’re seeing a shorter film.

I found the first Goosebumps to be a perfectly fine family film that tweens could watch with their parents as an alternative to the adult fare. I’m already dreading seeing how many children there will be at the new Halloween movie next week. The original had a good-set up, decent effects, solid acting, and while it turned into too much mayhem near the end with iffy CGI it was still more than modestly enjoyable. To be honest, I wasn’t even aware a sequel was greenlit, much less in the can and ready to go until I caught the first preview several months back.

With the principals from the first film unavailable and star Jack Black (The D Train) tied up making the also Halloween family friendly The House with a Clock in Its Walls, screenwriter Rob Lieber (Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, Peter Rabbit) and original writer Darren Lemke (Jack the Giant Slayer) fashioned a new story set in a different fictional town in upstate New York that takes their Halloween very seriously. Houses are decorated to the max (must be nice to have expendable cash) and costumes are several notches above your standard vampire fangs.  Sonny (Jeremy Taylor Ray, IT) and his upperclassman sister Sarah (Madison Iseman, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) live with their single mom Kathy (Wendi McLendon-Covey, Blended) in Wardenclyffe, NY and it’s almost Halloween. Sarah is occupied with boyfriend troubles and trying to get into college, Kathy is overworked, and Sonny is just trying to perfect his school science experiment. Though it often takes a backseat to the shenanigans that will follow, there’s a nice family dynamic created here and one that stresses responsibility to ones self and loved ones – not a bad message hiding amidst all the scares.

Together with his friend Sam (Caleel Harris), Sonny finds himself in an abandoned house cleaning out junk and that’s where the two boys come across a hidden chest that holds only a locked book and a key. Opening the book releases Slappy the ventriloquist dummy and that’s when all Halloween hell breaks loose. Though Slappy originally starts out as being somewhat helpful by showing Sonny and Sam’s bullies a thing or two and doing their chores, his benign nature gives away to something more evil when he causes an accident that sends Sarah’s cheating boyfriend to the hospital. Eventually, Slappy’s true nature is revealed…he wants to make Halloween come to life 365 days a year and rouses every manner of beast and ghoulie to achieve his task.

Director Ari Sandel won an Oscar for a short film in 2007. I haven’t seen that movie but it’s clear he has some style seeing that the movie bops along so pleasantly for its 90 minutes. It’s fast moving without making too many narrative leaps and surprisingly cohesive even with a sometimes overstuffed plot. Introducing R.L. Stine (Black, who also provides the menacing voice for Slappy) late into the mix feels unnecessary because he doesn’t have much to do. I get the impression Black became available after the script was completed and went through a small revision to include him. It’s all low-stakes but that’s what makes it a less intense experience than the first one, making it easier to recommend for smaller children…but parents should still heed the PG rating if your kid is of the nervous variety or else plan to invest in a nightlight.

I’m liking these low-impact scary films targeted at families more and more as studios start to get the idea of how to make them not quite so scary. While it isn’t something I would normally seek out in theaters, both Goosebumps films (and a second sequel hinted at in the finale) have been pleasant diversions to the more intense creepy fare that rises from the dead this time of the year.

Movie Review ~ Goosebumps

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A teenager teams up with the daughter of young adult horror author R.L. Stine after the writer’s imaginary demons are set free on the town of Greendale, Maryland.

Stars: Jack Black, Amy Ryan, Dylan Minnette, Odeya Rush, Jillian Bell, Ryan Lee, Ken Marino,

Director: Rob Letterman

Rated: PG

Running Length: 103 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Before YA fiction was solely developed as a target market for the next big cinematic franchise there were actual stories to be read.  I was a voracious reader when I was younger (who has the time now?) and I loved latching on to a series of books that I could develop a rapport with.  There was a certain safety in finding multiple volumes of a continuing story or interconnected adventures that made reading exciting.

I read a lot of R.L. Stine’s more teen centered fare when I was at the target age and his Goosebumps series was developed for a slightly younger crowd.  Short, sweet, and filled with any number of nightmarish happenings that didn’t feel all that scary, these were thin page-turners that helped prep youngsters to sleep without a nightlight and explore loftier fare as they grew older.  I went back and read a few of the early works in advance of the big screen adaptation of Goosebumps and found them to be energetic, creative, and breezy reads.  No wonder they’ve spawned several spin off novels, a T.V. series, and a handful of T.V. movies.

So the time had finally come to make a Goosebumps movie and the question was, which of the hundreds of stories to tell?  In a smart move, screenwriters Mike White and Darren Lemke (Jack the Giant Slayer) mashed many of the memorable monsters together in one film, front-loading their movie with fan favorites and several of the lesser known creepies that Stine thought up over the years.  In a further meta-twist, R.L. Stine would actually be a central character in the film, with the plot involving the secretive author helping teens in a small town after they accidentally release a bevy of ghoulish delights that escaped from Stine’s library.

Director Rob Letterman has cast the film with a strong roster of young and old talent and the movie has a Jumanji-like feel to it that made it a perfect choice for an early fall evening.  I was surprised at how much I was enjoying the film for the first hour or so until some budget conscious special effects took center stage and the movie became less interesting with each passing oogy-boogy moment.  What starts as a pleasantly genuine mystery/adventure turns into another run-of-the-mill everything-but-the-kitchen sink kinda experience.

As R.L. Stine, Jack Black (The D Train) is mostly amusing until you realize that he’s on auto-pilot, recycling the same manic seriousness that is his fallback whenever he’s feeling less than challenged. Employing his strange British accent (the real Stine hails from Ohio) and wide-eyed double takes, Black at least believes every line he says and commits fully.  Still, I find myself longing for the actor to continue to take steps outside of his usual shtick…like his stellar work in Bernie shows he is more than capable of.

Dylan Minnette (Prisoners) is a nice all-American teenager next door, a big city transplant to the small town where his mother (an underused Amy Ryan, Bridge of Spies) is the new vice principal.  Living next door to Stine he becomes enamored with his daughter (Odeya Rush, The Gift) who has secrets of her own.  The comic relief of the film comes from Jillian Bell (22 Jump Street) as Ryan’s flighty aunt and Ryan Lee (This is 40) as Minnette’s buck-toothed buddy.  Coming off as a young Don Knotts, Lee steals every scene he’s in, providing some genuine belly laughs along the way.

Though rated PG, this is one that parents should consider watching first before letting their younger tykes screen it.  I found the film to be fairly frightening and a little intense when the monsters get loose.  It’s one thing to read about these creepy crawlies but it’s another thing altogether to see them come to life on a very big screen (in 3D if you’re willing to pay for it).  Judging by the squeals and shrieks from the young audience I saw it with, parents will want to tread carefully.

Even with some misguided moments near the end, the film is welcome fall fare and nice counter programming to the scary adult offerings October usually brings.

The Silver Bullet ~ Goosebumps (2015)

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Synopsis: A young kid teams up with the niece of young adult horror author R.L. Stine after the writer’s imaginary demons are set free on the town of Greendale, Maryland.

Release Date:  October 16, 2015

Thoughts: The series of novels from which this new Jack Black fantasy is based on was a little after my time.  I grew up in the days of Christopher Pike and Lois Duncan suspense novels and R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps page-turners were geared toward the grades below my interest level.  Truth be told, the movie has my curiosity slightly piqued…but then again I’m a fan of campy creepers like The Monster Squad and Waxwork.  If I had to draw another comparison based on this first look at the October release, I’d toss Jumanji out there…and we all know how that one turned out.  Still, it’s rare to have a Halloween film aimed squarely at the PG set so the inner child in me won’t mind sidling up to the scares…however light they appear to be.

Movie Review ~ Jack the Giant Slayer

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The ancient war between humans and a race of giants is reignited when Jack, a young farmhand fighting for a kingdom and the love of a princess, opens a gateway between the two worlds.

Stars: Nicholas Hoult, Eleanor Tomlinson, Stanley Tucci, Ian McShane, Bill Nighy, Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner

Director: Bryan Singer

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 114 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review

Even though the efforts thus far haven’t proven wholly satisfying, Hollywood is still in love with revisionist special effects laden films based on popular fairy tales.  In the last few years we’ve had new takes on Alice in Wonderland, Little Red Riding Hood, and two tales about Snow White (Snow White and the Huntsman and Mirror, Mirror) yet none have captured the kind of magic that would make them memorable classics.

Now along comes the much delayed (and twice retitled) Jack the Giant Slayer with its magic beans and scary giants and y’know what…it’s not half bad.  Director Singer (The Usual Suspects, Superman Returns) wisely makes this a darker/more violent picture and this works wonders in setting a tone quite different than you might have originally expected.

Get ready for a lot of “Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum”-ing as the tale of the land of giants is relayed several times before the magic beans smuggled out of a kings tomb have sprouted a giant beanstalk up to the heavens.  Launched into the sky with it is a king’s daughter (Tomlinson) running from an arranged marriage to an arrogant knob (Tucci, who never met an arrogant knob he couldn’t turn with verve) and it’s up to a band of king’s men plus our title hero to save her. 

The film does take a little too long to get moving but the time taken for some often-ignored character development turns out to be a value add later in the picture.  Once the beanstalk has put down roots and the men start the climb upwards, the movie takes off with a nice zip and doesn’t stop until the credits roll.  In between you have loads of complicated effects-heavy action sequences (the supposed cause of the film being delayed from its planned June 2012 opening) and plenty of bloodless but surprisingly scary violence. 

Heading the cast is Hoult as young Jack and it’s thanks in part to Hoult’s nicely colored performance that the movie succeeds.  After playing a love-sick teen zombie in February’s modest hit Warm Bodies, Hoult has started 2013 off with a bang and I’m hoping that these two performances get him more noticed in Hollywood because he’s truly someone to watch.  Agreeable performances from McGregor and Tucci add some class to the joint and though Tomlinson’s princess isn’t the toughest girl on the block, she makes a believable love interest for Hoult.  Only Bremner as Tucci’s goofball assistant seems to have ventured in from a Benny Hill sketch so it’s a blessing when he makes an early exit after losing his head (whoops, spoiler alert).

Saying that Jack the Giant Slayer is probably the best of the fairy-tale-askew bunch isn’t really saying a whole lot because the rest have been so lousy — but thanks to strong visual effects and fresh performances it climbs its way to the top of the modest heap with ease.

The Silver Bullet ~ Turbo

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Synopsis: A freak accident might just help an everyday garden snail achieve his biggest dream: winning the Indy 500.

Release Date:  July 19, 2013

Thoughts: Animators are never at a loss for choosing which ordinary, run of the mill garden variety creature to make the star of a big summer film.  Dreamworks is betting on a snail to keep them in the race as the only true competitor with PIXAR…and they may just be on to something.  Though Dreamworks isn’t exactly hurting for a hit, the competition is getting stiff with other studios jumping on the cutting edge animation bandwagon.  Admittedly, though the teaser for Turbo is largely unremarkable I’d like to throw some confidence their way because I can see potential in this tale, especially considering its diverse vocal cast including Ryan Reynolds, Maya Rudolph, Snoop Dogg, Ken Jeong to name but a few.